‘Mortar’ by Sara Mumolo
Sara Mumolo’s Mortar sports a cover photo by Arthur Tress, a contemporary master of staged collisions between the mundane and the absurd. The image is mostly wall, set off by a small figure at the base wearing a spherical helmet (actually, it looks more like a dented colander). In context, the cover, though quite intriguing, may be too understated. Here, if anywhere, the clichéd arty book covers of painted nudes both inviting and challenging our gaze would be appropriate. Throughout the book, poems such as “Third Nude” “Left Nude,” and “Nude at Dusk” wittily challenge and deconstruct the convention of the painted nude, and live uneasily at the intersection of self and architecture.
This may already sound daunting, but Mortar doesn’t require much specific knowledge beyond the landscape paintings of Nicholas Poussin, and Philip Johnson’s glass house. It doesn’t play off an insider’s knowledge as much as the feeling the museum-goer might have of intensely dwelling in works of art. Instead of lush descriptions, the book is filled with witty, ironic fragments reminding us to unpack the painting from its curatorial package, and to question our position in this vexed triangle.
Central to the collection, “Philip’s Glass House” takes me back to Intro to Architecture class, where the excited professor would jab theatrically at the screen with a long, wooden pointer, saying “Look at [BAP] all those rivets! [BAP, BAP],” while launching into rhapsodic descriptions of glass and steel skyscrapers and the streamlined leather settees of Mies van der Rohe. Out of this excitement emerged the heroic figure of the architect, working to transform how people live, and how they perceive the relationship between the natural and the artificial world.
At the same time, I remember looking at Philip Johnson’s Glass House and wondering how anyone could live there. We learn that it’s on a secluded estate cleverly designed to replicate Poussin’s painting Funeral of Phocion. It’s the opposite of living in a tent: you would become part of the architecture and the landscape, strangely exposed, living on your own stage. And this is just where Mumolo’s poem goes: “not everyone inhabits their own pavilion, you did.” This ingeniously efficient statement describes Johnson’s irrepressibly theatrical self-promotion, combined with his ultimate intention that the estate be turned into a museum. Soon enough though, Johnson moved his own daily living quarters to the more traditionally constructed Brick House, leaving the Glass House for guests and parties.
Throughout the book, Mumolo writes dangerously sharp fragments destabilizing cultural assumptions. The experience of inhabiting painted or highly designed spaces is both ecstatic and anxiety provoking. As she writes, “The problem with a heart is that it’s too high. It isn’t that I miss climbing into a painting… it’s how we would make us when no one admits proportions. .. An important shame sheltered up there leaves us to be.” In Mortar, not only the architecture and the art, but even the self is “an artificial product civilization makes / true.” Sara Mumolo’s poems are not simply surreal poetic houses, machines made of words, but pointed explorations of the experience of living in a manufactured world:
A law of universal gravitation born from empirical observation
settles nausea between our bodies;
attraction flexes my renaissance thighs
She taps a pervasive anxiety that we may lose the distinction between nature and culture: “& we fail to sow Olympia / in my unposed limbs.” We may feel that beauty is the only medium of exchange, and that we suffer in comparison: “We’re not visible except as tokens / generated /near context”.
In any situation we are involved in coercion
At least earth’s singing voice
Not a leaf of me which does not make itself aware of how
Worked over it appears
Waves fling upcurb belittled by surface
Her phrases stack and scatter like Legos mapping the self and the gendered body, offering us a way to find, as she writes, “a more humane shake between material and idea.” She searches for a “Flexible architecture of belonging […] to someone,” while challenging the reader to think about the differences between “a breast, a photograph of a breast & the meaning of a breast.” Throughout the book, there is concern with how things can be exchanged, translated, compared, or even shared: “We construct approval of my emotional desperation,/ Which occurs from lack of exchange.”
On the back of this ecstatic experience of art is the hand of the banker, the curator, the architect showing us what and how to see. There is something sinister behind those endlessly helpful museum audio tours. If everything has been turned into a convention, if there is a curator showing us how to see, if we inhabit a painting whose meanings are defined by others, is there any nature left? Who the hell are we?
As Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory, at least since Poussin, Arcadia has also had a snake in it. Mumolo also captures our underlying anxiety about wild nature literally coming back to bite us, most pointedly in the true story of Tatiana, the Siberian tiger at the San Francisco Zoo that jumped over a barrier and killed a teenage visitor who may have been harassing her.
Sometimes the distinction between natural and artificial is not easy to make. Landscape and Memory reminds us that though we tend to divide the realms of human perception and nature, they are indivisible. Mumolo and Schama remind us that it is very difficult to distinguish between the natural and the artificial or the wild and the tame, and most such attempts to negotiate the boundary are both paradoxical and specious. It doesn’t make sense to say that a park is more natural than the painting of the park. Once we have made a landscape into a park, we have painted it, and we are dwelling in our painting. While Mumolo might agree with Schama’s optimistic argument that myths are a powerful way to layer and negotiate cultural memory, she is much more wary about the gendering of the landscape: “Landscapes are something to be,” “Landscape seems invented,” she says, and later: “I hate appearing in other people’s dreams.”
Mumolo reminds us that any building or painting has passed through a deep storehouse of cultural assumptions. This is unavoidable. There is no wilderness but the one inside us that we bring to every landscape. The great task is to see how our own curiosity has been shaped or preempted by cultural assumptions. One section titled “I am two tendencies to crack the lion drum” says: “As beasts, you and I mount globes…rid our village of its evil-eye,” and ultimately contrasts this with: “St Jerome climbs out of his pictures and gathers us as pets—as tigers—the village lives many thorns from here.”
Mortar negotiates this state of uncertainty while never explaining it away. A key idea is that “The apparent impossibility of something / first sign of its naturalness.” Mumolo reminds us both that we can “transfer money from one imagination to another,” while also thinking about how to love in an unexchangable way. Can this conflict ever be contained? As the title reminds us, the book is both a way to bind walls together and blast them apart.